Discipline in the ANC
So... the ANC has announced the date for its disciplinary hearing against its errant son, Julius Malema. May 3rd. It'll be behind closed doors, but luckily the ANC leaks like a sieve. Will they slap him on the wrist, or kick him out of the party?
Mr. Malema himself is in Venezuela on an official visit with his Youth League. Brace yourself for the usual choice headlines. He is, after all, a man who seems unable to straighten his tie without causing profound offence. Mr Malema is variously described as a clown, a media-creation, a bully, a public relations genius, the legitimate voice of South Africa's disempowered youth, the next Robert Mugabe, and a current favourite - Kiddie Amin, in reference to his youth and to a certain Ugandan dictator. His is, like it or not, a totemic figure in South Africa - the photo on the wall and on the dartboard.
Earlier this week, the ANC held a news conference - supposedly to update journalists on the Malema case. We dutifully assembled on the 11th floor of the ANC's headquarters to be told, in essence, that there was no news and nor should we expect any. In fact the assembled journalists should be ashamed of themselves.
Dull? Well it wasn't a laugh a minute, but the experience did offer some insights into the party that has ruled South Africa with a crushing majority for the past 15 years.
Mr Malema, leader of the ANC's Youth League, is being investigated in relation to a range of charges that presumably include promoting racial intolerance, causing offence, and undermining the party's leadership and policies.
President Jacob Zuma recently condemned his behaviour as "alien" and warned of "consequences." The speculation, ahead of the conference, was that despite his strong public comments, Mr Zuma didn't have the political clout or perhaps even the desire to discipline Mr Malema - and that the whole affair would be swept under the rug. That could leave Mr Zuma looking rather weak.
The suggestion was resolutely rejected by the ANC's formidable Deputy Secretary General, Thandi Modise. "Fudge? No... We are asking for space. We will consider it at our leisure... This is an internal matter and we do not wish to discuss it in public," she said. "We believe in collective leadership. Malema cannot oppose the president." So... no fudge for now. The charges against Mr Malema stand.
But Mme Modise declined to give any details about the investigation or the specific charges against Mr Malema. She also would not comment or when the process might be concluded. Instead, she and the ANC's spokesman Jackson Mthembu lashed out at the media, local and foreign for quoting unnamed sources within the ANC who "castigate our president....saying he's a weakling, finished, not decisive and that he's afraid of Malema... that he's a lame duck ."
Those sources were threatened, in contrast to Mr Malema, with immediate expulsion from the ANC.
Now of course it is natural that the ANC would rather sort out internal problems internally rather than washing its dirty linen in public. Any political party would want to do the same. But the ANC is such a broad, loose, and increasingly fractious coalition that such efforts are starting to look like a sumo wrestler hiding behind a flannel.
Thandi Modise urged foreign investors not to be put off by any of this. "We want to create jobs," she said, going out of her way to reject Mr Malema's talk of Zimbabwe-style land grabs. "The ANC would never go the Zim way... We will never do it. It will not happen."
But she then went on to acknowledge, indirectly, the increasingly unequal nature of South African society and to warn of growing pressure from the young and the poor whom Mr Malema claims to represent. "We must find a way of addressing [the land issue] quickly unless we want a Zimbabwe situation to impose itself on South Africa."
So where next for the ANC? The party has always closed ranks impressively against external criticism, although that has not protected it from some spectacular internal divisions. It is a fiercely proud organisation, with incredibly thin skin, and, despite its enduring popularity at the polls, a growing habit of misreading the public mood.
As it struggles to root out corruption, and to confront the "Zanu-PF" syndrome of liberation movements across Africa, its fate is inextricably entwined with the future of the whole country. Mr Malema is not the ANC but the way the party eventually deals with him will speak volumes.
As I left the news conference I suggested to an ANC official - who must, I'm afraid, remain nameless - that it looked like the whole Malema affair was indeed being brushed under the carpet. He grinned sheepishly, chuckled, and nodded.